Transhumanism and the Dialectics of Progressivism

Sunday 8th January, 2017

Steve Fuller

Emilie Whitaker has provided a masterful survey of the sensibilities that inform the rise of contemporary transhumanism, a movement in which I have been a participant-observer for the past ten years. Although it is easy to see – and possibly dismiss – transhumanism as a self-contained fringe phenomenon cooked up in the fevered minds of wealthy narcissists with too much time on their hands, my own entry into the field was by way of involvement in a European Union Sixth Framework project concerning the implications of a ‘converging technologies’ agenda for improving the human condition. In other words, it was a politically mainstream project that led me into transhumanism.

Against this backdrop, my student James MacFarlane has dedicated his PhD to distinguishing those whose desire to enhance the human condition aligns them with transhumanism and those whose support of human enhancement does not extend to support of transhumanism. Whitaker proposes going one step further, namely, to study ethnographically how one becomes a transhumanist, given what she regards as its prima facie sci-fi other worldliness. In contrast, I believe that the emergence of transhumanism can be politically normalized as the latest site for the struggle between liberalism and socialism, the two progressivist ideologies of the modern era. Within transhumanism itself, thanks to the sociologist James Hughes, the poles of this dialectic are marked as ‘technolibertarian’ and ‘technoprogressive’ – but in his hands they are treated largely as simply an in-house dispute.

Thus, to broaden the discussion, I start with the EU because its interest in transhumanist themes was in direct response to the US National Science Foundation’s wide-ranging 2002 report designed to coordinate research in the emerging nano-, bio-, info- and cogno- sciences and technologies towards ‘improving human performance’, to quote the report’s title. Nowadays I am inclined to read ‘enhancing’ where ‘improving’ was originally used.

To be sure, the two words are normally taken as synonyms, including in the documents associated with the converging technologies agenda. However, there is a subtle difference between the two words which is relevant to the rise of transhumanism. ‘Improving’ implies getting closer to some prescribed end – as in meeting known targets. ‘Enhancing’ implies exploiting a pre-existing capacity with no specific end in sight. While transhumanism is mainly about enhancement (which explains its preoccupations with virtual and augmented reality, prosthetics and life extension), the original NSF/EU initiatives were about improvement. This suggests that policymakers have been drawn to transhumanism, not as an alternative future to the one in which we have been heading, but rather as an attractive means to reach that very future.

So what is this already existing future that transhumanism might conveniently serve? It is a future that continues the Cold War policy of making the public sector the primary stakeholder in science and technology research and development, notwithstanding the sharp decline in the prospects of a global nuclear war. It is also a future that keeps social security systems intact by enabling older people to work longer before retirement, and hence before drawing a pension, thereby easing the financial burden on future generations – not to mention increasing the productivity of an increasing population. In other words, transhumanism was proposed as a practical strategy to sustain the postwar settlement of the welfare state at a time when budget deficits prompted the slashing of state science budgets and the underemployment of scientists, a policy that was itself too little to meet the costs of maintaining greater numbers of retired citizens in varying states of decrepitude.

Unfortunately, as Whitaker points out, the people and capital best positioned to implement this strategy are not necessarily sympathetic with the welfare state, at least in the social democratic form in which it is usually understood on both sides of the Atlantic. (A Fascist welfare state may be another matter.) They are libertarians and so they read ‘improve’ as ‘enhance’. What is interesting is the extent to which this semantic shift has begun to infiltrate public discourse, well beyond those who (like Peter Thiel) welcome the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency or openly identify with transhumanism. In terms explained in the first chapter of The Proactionary Imperative, the liberal imaginary is beginning to re-colonize the conceptual space of socialism as a pendulum swing against the colonization of liberalism by socialism after the failure of the 1848 European revolutions, which gave birth to The Communist Manifesto.

I shall first tackle the epistemology and then the politics of this swing – bringing the story up to date to transhumanism.

The epistemic difference between the liberal and socialist imaginaries turns on what might be called ends realism: Liberals are ends antirealists, socialists are ends realists. The 2.0 version is that liberals talk about ‘enhancing’ the human condition, whereas socialists talk about ‘improving’ it. Clearly I mean ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ as ideal types, but they are the poles that define the widespread ambivalence express towards transhumanism.

But this quite reasonable ambivalence should not be lazily reduced to liberty vs equality. Both liberals and socialists are ‘egalitarians’ in their own way. The former are egalitarian about opportunity, the latter about outcomes. Put another way, liberals want people to have the same starting position (‘a level playing field’), whereas socialists want them to have the same endpoint (‘everyone’s a winner’). Thus welfare state liberals tend to stress ex ante policies – from education to eugenics – whereas welfare state socialists tend to stress ex post policies designed to redistribute the fruits of human labour.

In any case, the operative division between liberals and socialists is liberty vs security. Liberals privilege liberty over security, in the spirit of, say, the right to bear arms was enshrined in the US Constitution, which was originally understood as extending the right to free expression. In contrast, socialists privilege security over liberty, which is to say, liberty is meaningless unless there are ‘safe spaces’ for its performance, the boundaries of which may be a university, a nation or the entire world. In the current political climate, liberals need to own the gun-toting privacy protectors as well as the cosmopolitan free traders, while socialists need to own both the anti-immigrant nationalists and the social justice warriors. In this respect, Hillary Clinton’s now infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ remark about Donald Trump’s followers managed to alienate half the natural constituency of both liberals and socialists in the 2016 US presidential election.

In political terms, liberals tend to see the extension of liberty as an inherent good (subject to various provisos, including that one person’s exercise of liberty should not interfere with another’s), with the ultimate consequence determined by whatever happens. Thus, liberals have both desired and expected a plurality of prosperous societies to result from the maximum expansion of liberty. The classical ‘Ricardian’ ideal of global free trade is meant to uphold an uncoerced division of labour, whereby each nation is recognized worldwide for what it can provide that no other nation can provide for itself. But what that set of goods and services turns out to be in any particular case is entirely contingent on how the respective nations exercise their liberty, which is bound to change over time, partly due to will but partly to circumstance. In any case, this general world-view justifies liberalism’s moniker as the ‘open society’.

If liberals want to universalise the sense of discretion that only lords enjoyed under feudalism, socialists want to mutualise the sense of dependency that defined the lord-serf relationship. Put another way, the thing that socialists like about feudalism is its ‘We’re all in it together’ character. The entire society was relationally based. The ‘only’ problem was the permanently asymmetrical character of those relations, a result of heredity playing such a large role in their definition. Nevertheless, equally salient to feudalism and socialism is the need to define the ‘we’ who are ‘in it together’. This ‘we’ then sets the terms on which one can set on a path of ‘improvement’ towards a common future utopia.

Indeed, socialism arguably converted humanism into the first version of modern identity politics, since Renaissance humanism, as carried forward through the Enlightenment and up to Feuerbach in the mid-19th century, tended to be individualistic in focus and aligned with liberalism. This was due to its rather specific reading of the Biblical account of humanity as having been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ to mean each human is so created – and accordingly each human will be judged. While socialism also owes much to Christianity, its reading of the Bible tends towards humanity’s species self-realization of its divine qualities, which implies that no one can be fully human until everyone is. Moreover, unlike the liberal interpretation, which leaves much of the ultimate outcomes to ‘chance’ (which theologically might mean God’s independent judgement), the socialist interpretation envisages the prospect of literally building a ‘heaven on earth’. This applies to both National Socialism and the more internationalist sort represented by the Soviet Union.

Liberalism began to be eclipsed by socialism after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, the ultimate failure of which Marx and others had diagnosed in terms of newly emancipated peoples being easy prey to divide and conquer strategies by more powerful parties. Against this backdrop, a politics of solidarity in pursuit of a common future became increasingly attractive and actionable. It is to this socialist mentality that we owe whatever sense of a universal human entitlement there is to decent living and working conditions. Social democratic, Communist and Fascist versions of socialism all draw on this mentality, differing mainly over scope of application and mode of enforcement.

A good way to see the influence of socialism on liberalism is that before the ascendancy of socialism, so-called classical liberals (who would now be called ‘libertarians’) did not believe that a person could be legally free unless they were capable of providing for themselves (e.g. through property or livelihood), independently of anything the state did. In this sense, citizenship functioned as a credential for prior achievements. After socialism, liberals increasingly subscribed to the idea that the state needs to ensure, if not outright provide, that people are equipped with the wherewithal to enable them to provide for themselves, through which they can then exercise their citizenship. The UN Declaration on Human Rights is crafted very much in that spirit.

Unfortunately, socialists of all stripes came to realize the hard way the overbearing costs of prioritizing the security of ‘we the people’, regardless of the scope of the ‘we’. This is the pendulum swing in which we live today, the crucible in which the transhumanist sensibility has been forged. What Whitaker identifies as the hypocrisy of transhumanism may simply reflect the latest enactment of the struggle between liberalism and socialism.

On the hyper-liberal side, transhumanists are keen to expand liberty from the level of practice to the level of being; hence the prominence given to ‘morphological freedom’ as a fundamental human right in Zoltan Istvan’s 2016 US presidential bid on the ‘Transhumanist Party’. Taken literally, the idea is that we should be able to live forever in our biological bodies or upload our minds into a silicon substratum - or anything ‘cyborgian’ in between. Only God knows what ‘social justice’ might mean in such a regime!

On the hyper-socialist side, transhumanists also assume that everyone would be keen to follow this path. They rarely consider what would happen to those who decide to stick with ‘Humanity 1.0’ even when ‘Humanity 2.0’ is on offer – other than to imply that such people might be crazy. A milder version is the transhumanist fixation on ‘universal basic income’, which presumes that people would welcome receiving the equivalent of a lifelong state pension given that technology will eventually replace their jobs.

That transhumanism is so easily ignored or dismissed by sociologists – especially when compared to posthumanism – probably reflects the residual influence of postmodernism in our discipline, especially its scepticism towards progressive metanarratives and any fixation on the human as the locus of value. Nevertheless, as Whitaker rightly observes, transhumanist ideas are bound to gain momentum in the coming years, especially among disenchanted yet aspirational individuals and groups who see in ‘the future’ a new world to play for.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. In 2011-14, he published a trilogy with Palgrave on ‘Humanity 2.0’. He tweets at @profstevefuller.

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